Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Drinking & Writing, with Cadenhead's

Sorry for the light posting this month, unfortunately its our busiest month of the year, and its been bit frantic at the distillery. Its likely to continue like this until January, then I'll have more time for blogging!

At any rate, here is the tale of one of my recent drinking-related adventures (still gotta find time for those). At the book signing last week (see Dec 7 post), we met two very fun guys named Sean Benjamin and Steve Mosqueda. They run the Drinking & Writing group, exploring the connection between alcohol and creativity. They put on a live, interactive theatre experience right now called Drinking & Writing Vol. 4, The Twelve Steps of Christmas. So of course we had to go check it out on Friday night.

The show takes place at the Victory Garden Theater, next to the bar, and it starts around 10:30 pm. The bar is open, and drinking is encouraged. Steve and Sean drink beer, tell stories from their own holiday experiences, and talk about famous writers (with a focus on those who were known to drink). The show begins with a brief history of Paganism and Saturnalia, and the later development of Christmas. Sean and Steve even name their three wise men of drinking & writing, Charles Dickens, Frank Capra (for his movies) and Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).

One interesting factoid from the show was that Geisel actually changed his name in college (to Seuss, his mother's maiden name) after he was disciplined at Dartmouth for violating Prohibition.

The show was a bit uneven, but very entertaining. It was definitely an interesting experience, and totally unlike any of the other live theatre shows I've been to, and I've been to quite a few. If you're in Chicagoland and you're interested, there's one more show left - it's this Friday night (Dec 21). You can visit their website or the theatre's for more info & tickets.

And of course a spirit tasting
Before the show, we met up at the Red Lion Pub across the street. We had some great pub grub, and I tried some new (to me) Scotches. I tried three different labels from the Cadenhead distillery, including
  • Girvan Single Grain (very light in flavor, smooth for its proof, and sweeter than the others)
  • 150th Anniversary Bottling of Single Malt (very nice, rich but balanced flavor, just a bit peaty and smoky)
  • And a 15-year old single malt that for which I neglected to write down the details (given that it was my 3rd drink, and all of these were cask strength, I have forgiven myself for that one). Too bad, since that one was my favorite. It was well structured, smooth and complex. Guess I'll have to go back to the Red Lion.
Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Repeal Day in Chicago

Unfortunately, the word about celebrating Repeal Day has not really caught on in the Windy City. I was in bars and liquor stores all over town on the magic day, and almost no one I encountered was aware that it was Repeal Day (and a few didn't know what it meant).

Despite this,
we decided that we should have our own cocktail bar tour to honor the day, and we had a fantastic time (and made some great plans for next year). Here's are a few highlights.

First Stop: Weber Grill Restaurant, 539 N. State, Chicago
I spent the day in the city, and had a little time to kill before my hubby would arrive by train. So why not visit our friends at the Weber Grill and try that Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection bourbon that's been calling my name whenever I see the menu?

This one says its wa
s transferred to a a French oak chardonnay barrel after 6 years, and was 14 years old at bottling. It claims to be from a sour rye mash. It was bottled at 45% alcohol.

Tasting notes: The nose was very heavy
with alcohol, more so than most spirits I smell. Adding some water seemed to help, but it still had a strong alcohol note. On first sip, it really didn't taste much like bourbon - it was a bit peaty and much drier than most bourbons. It was definitely fruity and spicy, with caramel notes. Not sure how I feel about this one. Anyone else tried it?

Next Stop: The Drawing Roo
m at Le Passage, 937 N. Rush, Chicago
Eric Felten (of the Wall Street Journal) was in town to sign copies of his book, How's Your Drink? What an appropriate event for Repeal Day! W
e had some amazing cocktails at the Drawing Room - they do everything by hand, using only fresh ingredients. On an regular night, they would even do it tableside - they have portable bars. How cool is that? Here are a few pics from the signing.

And yes, I need to work on my photography skills - I know you all wanted to see Eric Felten's back (photo at left). But I did get a great shot of Charles making a Brandy Crusta!

It was quite cold on this night, so we didn't want to go far. We headed off to 676 Restaurant, 676 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago for a quick bite to eat (it was great).

It was late, and it was a school night, so we headed home. Of course, we also made some plans for next year's Repeal Day... more on that later!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Academy of Spirits, The Big Finale

Yesterday was the big day. We had to present our original cocktails for judging and take a written 100-question final exam.

There were 12 drinks presented in total, using a wide variety of ingredients and garnishes. We were judged on technique (just the "lite" version, not nearly as tough as a true USBG competition), and then a sequestered panel of judges rated the drinks based on appearance, aroma and taste.

Just as a refresher, here was my entry:

Harvest Moon (for a 6.5 oz tall glass)
1½ oz Knob Creek Bourbon

1 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
½ oz Fresh-squeezed Orange Juice
Dash of Peach Bitters
Club Soda

Shake bourbon, liqueur, juice and bitters together, strain into ice-filled tall glass. Top up with club soda. Garnish with an orange wheel and flower (my actual garnish had a purple flower, but I couldn't find any of them near my house and I wasn't able to get a photo during the competition).

So how did I do?
Well, I didn't place in the top three. However, word on the street is that I came in fourth place. I feel pretty good about that, given that I've never been professionally behind the bar and most of my classmates make beverages professionally every day.

The top spot went to Angie Jackson of Ultimate Elixirs. Congrats Angie! The prize for winning? Angie gets to showcase her talents and her drink at graduation.
Her cocktail looked fantastic, and I am looking forward to tasting one at our graduation ceremony next week.

I am certain that I got at least a 75% on the final (I am always a bit of an overachiever on tests), so I am looking forward to graduation. This has been a great learning experience and I've made some great new friends along the way.

Random Trivia Bits
Here are a few of the interesting tidbits I learned while studying for the final, just for fun.
  • Drinks should be built in the glass half of a Boston Shaker so that you (and the customer) can see what's happening and you can measure by sight.
  • USBG rules stipulate that you should pour the least expensive ingredients first, working your way toward the most expensive. That way, if you make a mistake along the way, you can minimize the cost of rebuilding the drink.
  • It is rude to point your shaker toward a judge in competition, you should always shake to the side. As one of our judges, Debbie Peek from the Drawing Room pointed out, if you should ever have an accident, the drink would spill right onto the judge if you point it at him/her (ouch!).
  • Cognac producers add caramel coloring to their products, its just part of the production process for most if not all of them.
  • A frozen mug is about the worst thing you can do to a beer, it will cause some of the beer to freeze and the beer won't be at its best temperature. Use a chilled mug, but not a frozen one, for a cold one.
To learn more about this class and to sign up for the next term, visit the Illinois Chapter of the USBG and click on "Membership." The class runs every few months, and they rotate between downtown Chicago and Bolingbrook.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mixology Monday - Repeal Day!

Its another Mixology Monday, and this month's theme is Repeal Day. Our host is Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the creator of the Repeal Day website and a great mixologist, writer and blogger in his own right.

For a quick history on Repeal Day (December 5th), which marks the anniversary of the end of Prohibition in the U.S.A., please visit the official Repeal Day site. Jeffrey has done a terrific job setting out what its all about, so no need to repeat it here.

Being in Chicago, which was one of the hotbeds of the alcohol business during Prohibition, I struggled with what to write (plus its been a very busy week). I decided on a couple of cocktails, one for "hooch" and a decent one from the Prohibition era.

"Hooch" Cocktail Recipe
My trusty copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book contains a section I've never visited before, entitled "Cocktails Suitable for a Prohibition Country" (p. 184). One of these cocktails is similar to other drinks I've made, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Mr. Manhattan Cocktail
Crush 1 lump of sugar in a little water
Crush 4 leaves of fresh mint
1 Dash Lemon Juice
4 Dashes Orange Juice
1 Glass Gin
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.

Since this was suggested as a cocktail to make in a Prohibition country (the next one in the book actually calls for "hooch whisky"), I decided to make it with the gin in my collection that I like the very least. I guess I won't call it out by name (okay, I will - its Leyden Gin).

How was it?
Eh. It was better when we made it with a better gin, but it was only so-so. It seemed like it would require some tinkering to get it where you'd want to make it over and over again.

Another Fun Cocktail from the Prohibition Era
Just for fun, I thought I'd throw in a cocktail that I often enjoy that was created in the early 1920s, most likely by Harry McElhone (per Ted Haigh's excellent tome, Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails). As a few other bloggers found, there doesn't seem to be much other use for that bottle of Parfait Amour I bought awhile back, so I make this drink periodically.

Jupiter Cocktail (modified)
2 oz Dry Gin
1 oz Dry Vermouth
2 tsp Parfait Amour
2 tsp Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
Shake all ingredients with ice, then strain into cocktail glass. Do measure the ingredients on this one!

Happy Repeal Day, don't forget the toast on December 5th!

Note: pictures in this post are from www.old-pictures.com and www.istockphoto.com. I'm having some photo difficulties and wanted to get this up by midnight my time!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Homemade Lime Cordial

As a companion to my article on The Spirit World (should be up shortly), I wanted to put a more detailed piece about homemade lime cordial on my blog.

Awhile back, I wrote about the Gimlet and whether it must be made with Rose's Lime Juice. At that time, I stumbled on a recipe for homemade lime cordial on Wikipedia. For the last few weeks, I've been playing around with the recipe, and think I've (finally) got something. The original recipe was too sweet, and did not have enough lime. So I tinkered (and tinkered and tinkered).

First, the ingredients. The recipe started with weights, but I have converted them to volume equi
  • Sugar
  • Water
  • Fresh Lime Juice
  • Fresh Lime Rind (this is a bit of a pain, unless you have one of these, but you can do it with a knife and some patience)
  • Citric Acid (granular, derived from fruit, and called "Sour Salt" and available at big grocery stores)
  • Tartaric Acid (also granular, also derived from fruit, tougher to find, although you can get it at homebrewing stores and winemaking supply shops). Just FYI, cream of tartar is a derivative of tartaric acid, so originally I tried to make the cordial with cream of tartar instead. Never quite got it to be acidic enough, it was always too sweet. So I broke down and hunted down the tartaric acid.
The below recipe will make about 3 cups of lime cordial:
  • 1 1/2 cups Water (380 ml)
  • 3/4 cup Sugar (.35 lb)
  • 3/4 tsp Citric Acid (3.75 g)
  • 3/8 tsp Tartaric Acid (1.875 g)
  • Juice of 4 limes (~3/4 cup)
  • Rind of 2 limes, cut into pieces

sugar, citric acid and tartaric acid together with a whisk. Bring water to a boil, then add sugar mixture. Stir thoroughly to dissolve sugar mixture into water. Add lime juice and rind, and stir. Heat mixture for 1-2 minutes on high heat, then cover and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight in a sealed container, then strain out lime rind. Refrigerate for another day before using (the flavor continues to change a bit). Stored in the refrigerator, it should keep better than simple syrup.

Other Variations If you want it to be more tart, you can up the acids and/or reduce the sugar. Its also delicious made with lemon rather than lime. I particularly like a gimlet made with lemon cordial, with a gin that has lemon peel in its flavor profile.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Academy of Spirits, Part III

The Academy of Spirits is winding down, after ten exciting weeks of learning, tasting and mixing drinks. The last few classes have included cognac & brandy, vodka & gin (taught by Simon Ford of Absolut/Plymouth Gin), beer and aperitifs & cordials. Most of the classes have been great, and we've been able to taste a range of products.

Yesterday, we pulled it all together and mixed cocktails for a couple of hours. We made a Blood & Sand, modified Moscow Mule, Negroni, spiced flip, and a Bloody Mary from scratch (using cherry tomatoes). A pretty great way to spend a Monday afternoon, if you ask me, and I didn't even wear any of my drinks home (I tend to be a bit messy, especially outside of my own kitchen).

We also had to turn in an original recipe, which is part of the final exam. It must be a tall drink, served on ice, in a 6½ ounce glass. Of course we have to use spirits that we covered in class (which means they have to come from the Southern Wine & Spirits portfolio), but since they are probably the largest distributor in the U.S., there were lots of choices.

Here is my recipe:

Harvest Moon
1½ oz Knob Creek Bourbon

1 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
½ oz Fresh-squeezed Orange Juice
Dash of Peach Bitters
Club Soda

Shake bourbon, liqueur, juice and bitters together, strain into ice-filled tall glass. Top up with club soda. Garnish with an orange wheel and pansy flower (I think, I'm still working on the garnish).

I'll post an update next week with photos from the competition. Wish me luck!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is the Gin Market Flat?

I read a lot on the Internet, including many blogs. I am often inspired by others, and I enjoy learning from my online adventures. Occasionally I read something that sticks with me and gets me thinking. A couple of weeks ago, this article by Jordan Mackay appeared on chow.com. In the article, Mr. Mackay writes that the “gin market is flatlining” and that “[t]he proliferation of new gins is not a response to a market demand, but instead seems angled to create one, fueled by bartenders, distillers and booze enthusiasts rather than the general public.”

To be candid, the only reason I knew about it was because our website received a few hits from the article. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the co-founder of a small distillery (North Shore Distillery), and our flagship product is a thing called Distiller’s Gin No. 6. Mr. Mackay mentions our gins (neither positively nor negatively) in the article, so we got a few hits.

This article got me thinking. Is Mr. Mackay right? Is the gin market really flat? Is the proliferation of new gins really not a response to market demand? I am sure the statistics Mr. Mackay cites are accurate, but I don’t think they tell the whole story of what is happening with gin.

Proliferation of Gins
Indeed, as Mr. Mackay writes, there are a number of new gins coming to the market. He singles out some of the smaller brands in his critique, but the new gins are coming from a variety of sources. Some are from big houses (e.g., South Gin from Bacardi, Martin Miller from Skyy), others from small craft distilleries (e.g., Aviation, Distiller’s Gin No. 6) and still others from small marketing companies that seem to have lots of capital and big aspirations to launch national/international brands (e.g., Bulldog, D.H. Krahn). This isn’t so different from what you see in other segments of the alcoholic beverage industry. You could point to a similar variety of sources (and volume of new products) in beer, rum/cachaça, and tequila, and there are far more new entries coming in the vodka market.

As with any category of spirits, there are a variety of flavors and styles represented in these news offerings. Some are closer to a flavored vodka, with very little juniper flavor (and some with very little flavor at all), while others are an entirely new take on gin. The federal government’s definition of “gin” is very broad, so the distiller has a lot of latitude. And indeed, as Mr. Mackay writes, some of these gins are being made by people who don’t have a lot of experience. Based on what I’ve seen in the industry, any poor quality product will surely be dismissed as such by the consumers and critics.

Consumer Interest in Gin
Just as background, I spend several hours nearly every Friday and every Saturday in a liquor store or wine shop. I’m there to pour samples and tell people about our company and products, but I also have an opportunity to observe consumer behavior. I also spend nearly every Thursday and quite a few other nights a week in the restaurants, bars and clubs in the Chicago area. So I consider myself well-exposed to what’s happening in the alcoholic drinks world, at least in Chicago.

What do I see? I see a lot of younger people asking about gin, and interested in gin. They like the variety and options available in gin, and that it’s something different. Many folks have been turned off by all the hype and marketing around vodkas, and are looking for something else to drink. At least some of them are turning to gin as an alternative. The marketing approach used by Hendricks Gin is at least partly responsible – it aims to appeal to the person who doesn’t like to follow the herd. And there are a lot of them out there.

Now are these people the “general public”? No, but they are the trendsetters. In my experience, this is how new trends start. The general public doesn’t set new trends, it tends to follow rather than lead. Now, at least some of the leaders are going toward gin. This is all part of the resurgence of the cocktail culture, and interest in old-time cocktails (and properly made cocktails) rather than artificially flavored schlock.

A couple of other observations:

  • There is a dramatic difference between what people who live or hang out in the city are drinking from those who live in the suburbs (and beyond), and the city usually leads the trends.
  • More and more people in Chicago (and elsewhere) are beginning to appreciate high quality cocktails, as evidenced by the tremendous success of the cocktail programs at Nacional 27, the Spring Restaurant Group, The Violet Hour, and the newest entry, The Drawing Room at Le Passage.
  • Gin is an essential ingredient in a classic cocktail program, along with rye whiskey, bourbon and other spirits that are also experiencing a bit of a revival.

Craft Distilling
Another trend that Mr. Mackay noted is the growth in craft distilling, and that some of the new gins are coming from small craft distilleries. When we started our distillery three years ago, there were about 65 small distilleries in the U.S. Now there are 90 or so, so craft distilling is definitely a new trend. It’s a relatively uncharted frontier – the spirits industry has long been dominated by very large players (
Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, etc.), and distribution is tightly controlled by very large distributors in most markets. Nonetheless, intrepid adventurers are making spirits and trying to bring them to market.

Like the craft breweries before us (and small wineries before them), true craft distillers are often trying to challenge the status quo and showcase their capabilities as craftspeople. We use real ingredients rather than flavorings from flavoring labs, and sometimes step outside the traditional bounds and categories. As a result, we will sometimes make things that not everyone will like (especially those purists or traditionalists among us). But this is how real innovation occurs. We don’t use big focus groups and test marketing strategies like a Pernod-Ricard would (e.g., Indigo Gin, which seems to be disappearing from the Chicago market (can't even find a website for it)).

Are some craft distillers going to put out bad products? Undoubtedly. But some will also put out amazing things, the likes of which have not been seen before. While the former can be said for the big houses and the spirits marketing companies, the latter is less likely to come from those two groups.

The Bottom Line
The bottom line for me (us) is we love gin. We’re really excited to see people exploring gin again, and we see it all across the market, not just among the bartenders & booze enthusiasts.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau 2007

As of yesterday, Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

Is David Tamarkin, the wine guru from Time Out Chicago, right that the annual launch of Beaujolais Nouveau is
"the wine world’s biggest marketing scam"?

Well, yes, he is right. If its not the biggest, its one of the biggest. Nonetheless, being intrepid drink
s fans and curious folk, we ventured out to our neighborhood wine store to see how many folks were out and what the general response to the Beaujolais Nouveau was this year.

My first experience with Beaujolais Nouveau was in London six years ago. I didn't know anything about it, but was in a French restaurant on the right Thursday, and they offered it to me. At first, I thought it was a great idea, and I had a couple of glasses. I even got sucked into the marketing that year and the next. Then, later, I learned more about it... and now I mostly stay away. This year, for some reason, I got curious again. Was it any different than I remembered?

This Year's Beaujolais Nouveau
We went to Wine Knows in Grayslake, Illinois, a great wine shop run but two very nice gentlemen who really know their wine. Here's a photo of Larry, one of the owners, along with two of the samplers at the tasting:

Wine Knows was pouring three different bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, the ubiquitous Georges de Boeuf, Primeur by Joseph Drouhin, and one from Domaine Depeuble. Here are the labels (I'm still practicing how to take good shots for this blog):

So how were they? The de Boeuf and Primeur tasted very similar to each other. As David Tamarkin (correctly) put it, "its ... soft, simple stuff with little to no complexity." In other words, boring, rather blah.

In contrast, the Domaine Depeuble was drier, with a bit more body. We're still talking Beaujolais Nouveau, so it was very light, but it was definitely the best of the three. We took a bottle home and had it with dinner.

Anyone else gotten sucked into the Beaujolais Nouveau craze? If so, which ones did you try, and did you like them?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

R& W Creme de Violette Redux, and a Note on Storage

In my earlier post, I wrote that I think the Miclo Liqueur de Violette is superior to the Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette. I now wish to update my views on the R&W (pic taken from the Haus Alpenz website).

The R&W liqueurs (along with the other Haus Alpenz spirits) are now invading Chicago, so I've started seeing them. In fact, I bought a bottle of the Apricot Liqueur, which is fantastic. I got a bottle of the Batavia Arrack in SF, although I've not yet experimented with it.

Tasting Redux
I had another taste of the Violette at The Violet Hour last week, and it was very good. Complex, not too sweet, with a nice lingering violet flavor. I also had a cocktail with it on Saturday night with some friends, and it was delightful then as well. It really shined in the cocktails. The key seems to be that both of these bottles were brand new, just opened. The bottle we tried in San Francisco (both in a cocktail and straight) had been there for awhile, and the bartender we talked with wasn't a big fan, so I don't think it was used very often.

To be fair, we've also noticed changes over time with the Miclo. I went back and revisited a bottle I opened on Labor Day here (early Sept. for those not in the US), and it has already changed color some and the violet flavor has declined some. What's left is on its way to a sweet, nondescript liqueur. We keep it now only to see what else might happen to it. I have another new bottle on hand for when I'm ready to embark on a Violette fest.

What to Do, What to Do
The key may be this: like any liqueur (or vermouth, etc.) that is not above a certain proof, it should be used quickly or else refrigerated. If it is not, the flavor will decline, and the spirit could potentially go bad.

I think this happens fairly often, and its a mystery to me why it doesn't get talked about more. Many a bartender/bar owner I've met uses only economy-sized bottles of vermouth, even though they rarely pour it, and they don't refrigerate it. It seems like manufacturers don't do enough to tell people how to handle these products either. Some products say something on the label, but many don't.

Anyone else have any stories with spoiled spirits? I'm thinking of a bad experience with a cream liqueur many years ago that enlightened me to the need for refrigeration...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mixology Monday!

I am excited to participate in my first Mixology Monday. For anyone who isn't aware, Paul Clarke at the Cocktail Chronicles started a great program for bloggers & mixologists. Once a month, interested folks post about that month's topic, and one of the bloggers hosts the conversation and writes up a summary. This month's theme is gin, and its being hosted by Jay Hepburn over at Oh Gosh! (the guidelines are posted here).

I love gin, so once I saw this topic I knew I was in. Here's just a sampling of our gin collection. Believe it or not, we have many more gins, they're just not all at home where I had the camera. Since we're in the gin business, we like to try other gins and we often end up buying a bot
tle unless we can try them at a bar. Plus, we like to have options for our guests (we're sort of known for that nowadays).

When is Gin not Gin?
Gins vary widely on level of flavor, the flavor components and arrangement, smoothness and texture (that's why gin is so fun). I've tried a few that you could substitute for vodka and not know the difference, and some that overpower nearly everything you mix with it. Some of the newer ones don't really meet my definition of gin - they have juniper in them, but you don't really taste it, or it isn't a dominant flavor in the spirit. It seems the government only checks the formula submittal to look for juniper, not the actual taste (that's a whole other topic).

Then there's the whole subject of how gins are made, and the differences in types of gin (Genever, London Dry, Old Tom, etc). Oh I could go on and on about gin! I think I'll have to expand on it in future posts.

Drinking Gin
To be honest, I primarily drink gin in martinis or on the rocks with a twist. However, we often make cocktails for friends and family (and on that rare occasion when I have a craving). One of my favorites cocktails with gin right now is the Bebbo Cocktail. I learned about it from Ted Haigh's excellent book, Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails.

The Bebbo Cocktail
1½ oz Gin
1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz Honey
2 tsp Fresh Orange Juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Glass: cocktail

Stir all the ingredients in a shaker (without ice) until the honey has dissolved. Add ice, shake & strain into glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.

And for fun, I thought I'd throw in an original recipe. I've been playing around with pears a lot lately - so many great varieties available right now.

Pearadise Found
2 oz Gin
2.5 oz Pear Puree or Nectar
1 oz Lillet Blanc
Dash of Orange Bitters
Glass: champagne flute or cocktail glass

Shake all the ingredients with ice, strain into glass. Garnish with a thin strip of red pear (or a skewer of small pear chunks).

Of course, depending on what gin you use, you may have to tweak these recipes slightly.

Cheers to Gin!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bitter Lemon Taste Tests

I don't know about you, but I love bitter lemon. Ever since I bought my first 6-pack of Schweppes Bitter Lemon, I've been hooked. For a long time, it was really hard to find, but in the last couple of years, we've seen it quite often. Sometimes I drink it alone, and sometimes I substitute it for tonic water in a G&T. I often describe it as a blend of tonic water and lemonade, and its refreshing.

This summer, a new bitter lemon came to Chicago (Fever Tree), so I had to try it. And then this fall, I found another one (Stirrings) when I was visiting downstate Illinois. So it seemed to be high time for a review & tasting of bitter lemon (I can't tell you how excited I am to have mor
e than one to try!).

With our 4-person tasting panel (my father-in-law is still here), we tasted these today. We tried them on their own, over ice, with vodka and with gin. As with our tonic tasting, we had a variety of opinions. Here's a general summary:

Fever Tree - three of us liked this one best on its own, with ice and with vodka. Its a bit lighter on quinine and overall flavor than the other two. It has a very fresh, genuine lemon flavor along with some nice herbal notes and a touch of quinine. With gin, only one of us liked it best (that was me). Others felt it was too light for gin.

Schweppes - one of us liked this one best on its own, with ice, and with vodka. It has a nice balance of lemon flavor and quinine, and like the tonic water, the quinine is actually accentuated by ice. The lemon is less fresh and natural compared to the other two. It worked well with the gin too, but only one us picked it as the favorite.

Stirrings - As with the tonic, this seemed to be a love it or hate it for our little tasting group. Two of us picked this as best with the gin, while the other two of us picked it as worst. On its own, with ice and with vodka, it was never chosen first, and sometimes chosen last. It has more flavor than the others, perhaps more quinine than Schweppes, and stronger herbal notes. To me, it tasted a bit like Sprite with some ginger & anise thrown in. Others tasted the ginger and earthy spices.

Anyone seen any other bitter lemon sodas out there? I just got my hands on some of the Dry Sodas, so I'm looking forward to trying those.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Cocktail & Food Pairings

On Tuesday night, we had the pleasure of attending one of John Kinder's Spirited Dinners at MK The Restaurant. For the past few weeks, John has been running this program under the radar, just telling his friends & associates about it. We were excited to have an opportunity to join in this week.

John ha
s been working with MK's Executive Chef, Erick Simmons (click on "About Us" for bio & picture) and Pastry Chef Amy Sampson to develop a menu of cocktails and food pairings.Here's a brief rundown of the eating and drinking delights we enjoyed:

Aperitif & Amuse Bouche
d: fresh peeky toe crab, with small grapefruit pieces
Drink: House-made forelle pear spirit, clove grapefruit sour

1st Course & Cocktail
Food: Hamachi with yellow tail tuna, hearts of palm puree and pineapple relish
Drink: Gin No. 6 (a nice surprise!), jasmine-lemon sour, champagne, with a flamed tangerine peel garnish, which was a nice complement to the relish

Entree (and the most interesting pairing of the night)
Food: Crispy skin moulard duck breast, with cabbage, apples and calvados emulsion
Drink: Calvados, vermouth, orange juice and duck jus (yes, you read that right, duck jus)

This one was a great pairing, and the flavor from the duck jus was unmistakable in the cocktail. The cocktail was very savory already, and may have been a great pairing without the addition of duck jus, but it was also very interesting with it.

Food: buttermilk chocolate cake layered with milk chocolate mousse, bittersweet pave and meringue buttercream
Drink: John called it a Coffee Cocktail, made with cognac, port, sugar & a whole egg - it tasted a bit like coffee, but contained no coffee. John said it was an old-time cocktail, which I'll now have to research further!

This was a fantastic experience, and we were so excited to see John doing this. We've often played around with food & cocktail pairings, but most of the folks we talk to don't seem ready for it yet.

For John, its been a passion of his since he quit his day job to bartend a couple of years ago, so it was great to see him actually doing it (and having people come and enjoy it). If you're in Chicago, and you want to attend, get in touch with me and I'll put you in touch with John. So far, he's not seeking out publicity for this, but at some point its going to catch on and be very hard to get in on!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Crowning Chicago's First Iron Bartender

Last night, I had the privilege of attending the first-ever Chicago Iron Bartender Competition. The event was held at Le Passage, which is undergoing a very exciting transformation right now (more on that later).

I knew it was going to be a great experience when I walked up to the bar and found myself standing next to Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail himself. And he was handing me a drink, after he had just confirmed with the bartenders that the recipe was as he intended (he had developed it for the event). It was great, of course - rum, fresh kiwi, coconut syrup and a splash of coconut milk.

The Main Event

Twelve finalists battled it out and created an amazing array of cocktails, but only one could be crowned Chicago's first Iron Bartender. We have some amazing bartenders in the Chicago area, and this was a great opportunity to see them all in action, all in one place. With Dale and Tony Abou-Ganim on hand to emcee, I knew I was in a room full of some of the best mixologists in the U.S.

The Rules

Each competitor had a few minutes to scout out the available ingredients before the event began. The bar was stocked with a variety of fruits, juices, spices and other potential ingredients. However, none of the competitors was able to make the recipe submitted to the contest initially - everyone was missing at least one critical ingredient. Instead, they were forced to modify their recipe or make an entirely new drink on the fly.

Here are some photos of each of the three heats:

In Round One, the competition was fierce, with our good friend Tim of Spring Restaurant Group challenging John from MK, Angie of Ultimate Elixirs, and Wilber of Bice.

The competitors in Round Two included P
eter from Sepia, Radostin from the Doubletree Oak Brook, Debbi from The Drawing Room at Le Passage, and Tony from Jilly's Naperville.

Round Three featured Charles from Three Headed Productions, James from Otom Restaurant, Adam of Nacional 27 and Enrique from Martini Park.

Each successive round was more tense than the prior one, and all twelve drinks were very impressive. They covered the entire range of the cocktail spectrum, from the very light to the very rich, from the aperitif to dessert in a glass.

So who won?
It was tough night for the judging panel, which included Bridget Albert, Francesco Lafranconi and Simon Ford from Absolut/Plymouth Gin. In fact, we even had one tie during the rounds. After the initial rounds, Charles, Peter and John advanced to the final round.

One more round of drinks later (where all three chose to make another new drink rather than repeating their earlier creation), Peter V. of Sepia was crowned Chicago's Iron Bartender. Congratulations to Peter, and to all of the competitors - it was a fantastic event, and a whole lot of fun to watch.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Does a White Lady Require Egg White?

We recently had cocktails at The Violet Hour in Chicago, and we had some fantastic conversations with the people sitting next to us at the bar. In one of them, our new friend told us that his recipe for the White Lady requires egg white. We'd never put egg white into the drink before, and being the curious sort, I decided to research this a bit and potentially give it a try.

First, a brief History
This is an old drink, popular since at least the 1930's. It seems that two people
are often credited with creating this drink, both of them named Harry. The first published instance of the recipe seems to be the Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (1930), who was in London at the American Bar at the time. However, Harry MacElhone is also often credited with the drink, reputedly making the drink as early as 1919, albeit with créme de menthe rather than gin. He later perfected it at Harry's New York Bar in Paris in the late 1920's or early 1930's (although their website claims 1919 as the creation date).

Unfortunately we'll probably never know which story is right, perhaps they both are - its certainly not unheard of for people to separately develop very similar cocktails.

The Rec
ipe & Variations
In the Savoy, the recipe is:
2 parts Gin
1 part Cointreau
1 part Fresh Lemon Juice

No egg white (and certainly no
créme de menthe).

Some potential variations I've seen or read about, after researching it:
  • Using equal parts of the three ingredients rather than 2:1:1
  • Adding anywhere from 1 tsp to one whole egg white
  • Reducing the lemon juice to 1/2 a part (with or without egg white)

The egg white is an interesting variation, it adds a creaminess and totally changes the texture of the drink (as it does with any cocktail it visits). With equal parts of the ingredients, or with the original Savoy recipe, I liked the egg white variation - it cut the bite of the lemon a bit, but still left the rest of the flavors intact. Half an egg white was enough for me, though - more than that and I started to taste the egg white and get that teeth coating thing happening.

So what's best?
In the end, I think I like the original Savoy recipe best, although I found the variations interesting. I imagine this is yet another case where personal preference decides the best recipe.

And an afternote...
Just for fun, when I was back at the Violet Hour tonight, I asked the bartender, Michael (photo at left), how he makes his White Lady. He laughed for a second, and said he hasn't made that drink since about 1974 (bear in mind he's only about 30, 35 tops), and that the last person who ordered it was a 60-year old Englishman. However, he said he definitely didn't use any egg white when he made it.
He found it very entertaining that a discussion about it (which inspired my blog post) took place at his bar, though!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Negroni Revisited

This weekend, I found myself on the road in southern Illinois (I know, you're jealous). It was a bit harder to find a great cocktail, but I did manage to find a couple of great bars in Champaign-Urbana. In one of my stops, I revisited one of my favorite drinks, the Negroni, and was reminded of some great variations on it that I've had in recent months.

Now the Negroni is the Negroni, and pretty much every single bartending book I consulted has the same recipe. Maybe I should just leave it as it is, but I like playing around with recipes and seeing what others have done with it as well.

Here is the original, for anyone who might not yet have tried one:

1 part Gin
1 part Sweet Vermouth (classically, Cinzano Rosso)
1 part Campari

Traditionally, it would be served on the rocks (and stirred gently), but it can also be served in a cocktail glass after shaking with ice. The traditional garnish would be a slice of orange or an orange twist (you could even flame it if you wanted).

Brief History
Legend has it that the Negroni was named for Count Negroni, who often ordered it at a bar in Italy, initially as an Americano with gin added. The Americans were already loving the Americano drink, so they also adopted the Negroni and some brought it home with them. The drink is intended as a pre-dinner drink, an aperitif, to stimulate the appetite.

Drink Tinkering
You have a choice in gin, and vermouth, and those will affect the final drink. Sweet vermouths can vary quite a lot in flavor, spice and sweetness, so the balance with the Campari can vary quite a bit. You could also adjust the proportions, which I have been known to do (sometimes the Campari is just a bit too much for me in the original proportions, so I'll tone it down just a bit, or I might add a dash extra).

And, if you are OK with bucking tradition, you could substitute another spirit for the Campari.

Here is my favorite version right now, which I learned from Josh Kaplan, the beverage guru at MK Restaurant in Chicago:

MK's Negroni Recipe
1 part Gin (he was using our Distiller's Gin No. 6, but it also works with other gins)
1 part Vya Sweet Vermouth
1 part Aperol

Served up, and garnished with an orange twist.

The Aperol is a bitter, but not as bitter as Campari, and its flavor profile is a bit different (sweet orange rather than spice). It blends particularly nicely with the Vya sweet vermouth - I have consistently been impressed with the combination. It has a lovely balance of flavors, each making itself known, rather than one dominating the drink.

Anyone have a favorite Negroni recipe other than the original?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Q Tonic - A Taste at Last

Since I didn't have to go to class today, we decided to conduct our taste test of Q Tonic. All of us were excited to try this new tonic, which we had heard and read about but not tasted. We decided to compare it to the other tonics we have on hand, Fever Tree, Stirrings and the ubiquitous Schweppes.

We have a special guest with us today, my father-in-law, so we had 4 people on our tasting panel this time. As before, we tried the tonics on their own, with our vodka and with our Distiller's Gin No. 6 (of course).

What did we think?
Our reviews of Q were mixed. We all liked it with the vodka, but most of us (3 out of 4) did not like it with the gin - it seemed to bury the gin too much and created some off notes on the palate. On its own, it is fresh tasting and light, with a moderate amount of quinine (Schweppes has more).

All of us still really liked the Fever Tree, and we found that when we adjusted the proportions, we could get a bit more of the gin to shine through. It was very fresh tasting, complex and not too sweet. It seems to have a bit more quinine than Q. Everyone ranked it 1st or 2nd with both the vodka and the gin.

With the Stirrings, one of us felt it was too sweet and therefore did not like it. However, two of us liked it best of all the tonics with the gin, loving its fresh citrus notes and its pairing with the gin. The Stirrings was the sweetest of the bunch, and was light on the quinine.

None of us picked the Schweppes as the best. We did like it better than other major market brands when we tried it before, but we like these new brands better.

Some conclusions:
  • Tonic water is a matter of personal taste - they vary on quinine, sweetness and other flavors
  • Tonics really do vary, they are not interchangeable
  • Tonics perform differently with different spirits, so you have to try them out with what you want to mix with - we picked different tonics as best for different spirits
Please chime in if you have any tonic experiences to share!

Academy of Spirits, Part II

A few posts ago, I talked about the Academy of Fine Spirits, and I thought I would give a quick update on the class. Last week, we had our infusion contest judging - each of us was given a large Ball jar and some vodka, and an array of ingredients to select from. We had to infuse our vodka for two weeks, and then bring it back to the class. During the two weeks, we were not allowed to add or take away any ingredients, but we could place the jar in different temperature and light settings, as desired.

So how did I do?
Well, I didn't win the contest (Cara B. from Weber Grill Restaurant was the winner - congrats Cara!). Cara's infusion was fruit-focused, with mango, berries and pineapple. I had tried for a savory infusion, with cucumber, rosemary, cardamom and a bit of red pear. If I could have removed the cardamom and rosemary earlier, it might've been OK - since I couldn't, it was mostly a cardamom infusion with a bit of rosemary. It was interesting to see what others put into the jar, and what came out on the other side - it was a great supplement to the experimentation I've already been doing. Its much easier when you can adjust the process and ingredients throughout the infusion!

Interesting Random Tidbits
We were originally to have our midterm today (class was just cancelled this am), so I have been studying the last day or so. Here are a few fun factoids from the topics on our midterm:
  • Alcohol has been regulated by governments since at least 1770 BC (under King Hammurabi's code then)
  • Agave is a member of the amaryllis family (and is most definitely not a cactus)
  • An agave piña weighs 25-30 kilos and takes 8-10 years to ripen, once picked they are cut, steamed and crushed to extract sweet juice for fermentation
  • In tequila, the age statement refers to an average age of the tequilas blended to make that batch. In scotch and rum, it refers to the youngest spirit in the blend.
  • The term "single malt" can be used on a scotch made at a single distillery. It doesn't have to be from a single malting or even a single year, just all from one distillery.
There are so many rules for each type of spirit, its interesting (and we're only scratching the surface in this class). I've become extremely familiar with the rules for the products we make, but less so for other types of spirits. Its interesting to see what is and isn't required, etc. and where the distiller has flexibility and where he or she doesn't have any.

Hopefully I'll retain what I've learned for the midterm next week!

In the meantime, here is the recipe we made for a classic mojito. As you may know, the mojito is an old drink (ca. 1900), not a new one. It was invented in Cuba and popularized at a bar there in the 1930's. Supposedly Ernest Hemingway is credited with introducing it to the U.S. mainland. This is the original recipe (or so they claim):

Classic Mojito

1-1/2 oz White rum
1-1/2 oz Simple Syrup
1/2 of a Lime, Pressed
10-15 Mint Leaves
Soda water

Muddle mint in an old fashioned glass with lime and syrup. Just a few presses with the muddler, don't grind it into submission. Add crushed ice, rum and top with soda. Garnish with mint sprig.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fantastic Cocktails in SF, Part II

On our last day in San Fran, we went to one more great cocktail bar that had been recommended to us by several sources (including a few attendees at the Independent Spirit Fest). The reports we'd received were that this bar has a daytime cocktail menu and a nighttime menu that only comes out after sunset. Intrigued by this idea, and the fact that we knew they were making great drinks, we headed out to its neighborhood, the Haight.

We arrived around 12:30 pm at The Alembic, and were greeted by Josey Packard, the bartender/mixologist on duty. Josey swiftly gave us menus and told us a bit about the place, and we set about deciding what to have. The vast array of truly unique spirits behind the bar was awe inspiring, so we tried to focus on the drink list.

Here are the cocktails we tried, along with some amazing eats:

Round I
Ramos Gin Fizz (never had a proper one of these in a bar before)
Red Snapper (housemade mary mix with gin rather than vodka)

Round II
Pearly Gates (gin, mint, lime, and a secret ingredient)
Bloody Bloody Bull (with beef broth added, and we asked for Aquavit rather than tequila)

All the cocktails were great, but my fave was the Pearly Gates (which we later learned was one of Josey's creations, hence the photo of her and the drink above!). As I get older, I am developing more of a taste for anise, so the hint of it from the mystery ingredient was great in this drink. I'll have to see if I can get Josey to give me that recipe!
Unfortunately we had to leave to catch our plane, or we could've easily stayed until the nighttime menu came out and talk more with Josey. We even got to try some Old Tom gin there, as well as some other spirits we've not seen before - it was great!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Creme de Violette - An Unknown (but Excellent) Brand?

In the last couple of months, I've seen a few blogs and articles about Creme de Violette, a required ingredient for a number of drinks in the Savoy Cocktail Book and other classic cocktails. A new brand of Creme de Violette has started appearing in the U.S, Rothman & Winter, imported by the folks at Haus Alpenz.

While we weren't able to locate a bottle of the Rothman & Winter in SF (and we've not seen any here in Chicago), we did manage to get a taste of it at Absinthe (yet another great cocktail bar we visited in SF). It was nice, but I must say it is not as good as the one we've regularly been buying in Chicago.

Of course, we can only find it at one store in Chicago (Sam's Wine & Spirits in Lincoln Park), and they are sometimes out of it, because those of us in the know buy it up and the company that imports it doesn't come to town very often, but it is exceptional.

It's made by G. Miclo in France, and is imported by a very small import company. It has a delicate yet complex violet flavor that lingers, and is not overwhelmingly sweet.

Anyone else tried this violet liqueur or the Hermes version (or another one)? What did you think? How did it compare to the Rothman & Winter?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fantastic Cocktails in SF, Part I

One of our favorite meals in San Fran was at Nopa. The place came highly recommended from our new friend Gabrielle at Bourbon and Branch (another great cocktail bar we had visited on Friday night), and boy was she right. We arrived around 11 pm Saturday night, and we sat at the bar. Shortly after arriving, we met Neyah White (-->), the fantastic mixologist behind many of their libations.

Great Cocktails and New (to us) Spirits
We tried a couple of cocktails at Nopa, including The Last Word (Green Chartreuse, gin, maraschino and lime), as well as a classic Sazerac (with Wild Turkey) - both were very good. We then moved on to searching the bar for bottles of things we had not seen before (one of our favorite pastimes, especially when traveling). I tried a bourbon called Hancock's Reserve that was very nice, and made by the fine folks at Buffalo Trace. Derek ordered a classic Manhattan, and Neyah introduced us to a new vermouth - Carpano Antica. It was fantastic.

We tried some homemade bitters (loved the Sunshine bitters with saffron & cardamom) and talked about other classic cocktails with Neyah and Paul, the very nice gentleman sitting next to us. With our dessert (an intriguing warm apple & cheddar crisp with reggiano gelato), Neyah poured a Angostura 1919 rum, which we had also never seen before (why don't we have those in Chicago?).

And Future Adventures...
At the end of the night, Neyah graciously let us leave with bottles of two things we'd not seen in the flesh before -
Q Tonic and Cock 'n Bull ginger beer. Look for future posts on this elusive tonic that had been missing from our earlier review, and of this original brand of ginger beer! I feel a Moscow Mule coming on....

One thing I realized is that we really do need to travel more and see what's happening in the cocktail culture outside of Chicago. There are amazing flavors, products and cocktails that haven't made their way here yet!